Is this the last year for SATs? Sam Derby discusses a possible end to SATs, and looks at the opinion that the exams are “too stressful” for young pupilsFirst published in May 2008

What are SATs?

SATs are given in schools at the end of Years 2, 6 and 9.They are used to show your child’s progress compared with other children born in the same month. The mean (average) score for each age group on an assessment is set at 100 and the standard deviation at 15. For any age group a given numerical value has the same meaning in terms of standing relative to the group. For example, an eight-year-old and a nine-year-old, each of whom has a standard age score of 105, have performed equally well in relation to the average for their respective age groups. You could be in the midst of one of three lots of SATs:

  • Key Stage 1 – SATs take place in Year 2 throughout May. Each child is teacher-assessed in reading, writing (including spelling and handwriting), maths (including number, shape, space and measurement) and science. The  child’s class teacher will set short pieces of work in English and maths to judge what level of ability the child is considered to be.
  • Key Stage 2 – SATs take place in May and are far more formal than Key Stage 1, hence they seem much more stressful! The tests which are taken in Year 6 cover the three core subjects, English, maths and science.
  • Key Stage 3 – SATs take place in May and are once again formal tests/exams. The exams cover work done in English, maths and science during Years 7 to 9. These exams are often used to decide which GSCE set a child will be placed in.

Assessment and stress

Recent article and reports in the media have been littered with talk that SATs are too stressful for our young pupils. On top of this, in December 2007, the government announced that 2009 could see the end to Key Stage tests which have loomed large on timetables for many years. Now is the time to look at the current issues being debated in education, at what might replace SATs from next year and, in the meantime, think about some practical ways of relieving some of the stress of SATs preparation.

An unstable future

The government’s plan to replace end of Key Stage 2 SATs with single-level tests already seems to be in turmoil. High-pressure SATs which occur in every state school are to be replaced with shorter, less formal exams in English and maths which will be taken up to twice a year, when individual children are ready to progress. However, government schools secretary, Ed Balls, has already ordered an enquiry into ‘irregularities’ in the trial test results, inconsistencies which may have resulted from scores being lower than expected. Thus, for the time being, these results have been withdrawn. Despite these and other initial problems with test design, stemming from the fact that the single-level tests need to be appropriate for the whole primary age range, Ed Balls has asked Jim Rose to take account of the pilot in his review of the primary curriculum. But more than one in seven schools pulled out of the trial due to worries about teachers’ workloads. Schools and publishers alike are asking themselves: could the government reforms mean that teachers and pupils will end up having to spend more time than ever on testing and being tested? The difficulty faced by ministers at present is how to keep parents informed about their children’s progress. In January this year, Ed Balls announced that secondary teachers would have to provide ‘real time reporting’ to parents by 2010 and that primary schools would follow in 2012 while ensuring that they still have the time and space to teach rather than drill children for tests and exams. Although cynics might comment that, given the relentless target-setting agenda pursued by these same ministers – the target is now for 90% of primary school pupils to achieve the ‘expected level’ in English, maths and science by the end of KS2 – teaching to the test is exactly what they want to encourage.

What can we do now to prepare our pupils?
It goes without saying that the best preparation for SATs needs to start in Reception but even with the best teaching, children still need specific practice and preparation in answering the kinds of questions that they are likely to be asked in each year’s tests. Children not only need to practise specific question types but they also need feedback on their answers, the opportunity to improve them and then to see what success looks like for them. And, of course, they need preparation for the conditions in which the tests will take place, too.

SATs preparation can be relatively flexible, beginning any time between September and March in order to be ready for tests during May. A checklist for ideal preparation might look something like this:

  • provide specific teaching of and opportunities to practise SATs-style questions at Levels 3 to 5
  • ensure that pupils have opportunities to take in new information and acquire new skills while simultaneously consolidating and extending their existing ones
  • provide differentiated support to enable every child to aim for the highest realistic level
  • provide detailed feedback to enable children to improve their answers.

Every teacher will know that this will take a large amount of precious time, but there really is no escaping this aspect of SATs preparation. However, it should enable teachers to prepare children while maintaining their focus on learning, rather than continually practising and rehearsing the mechanics of the test itself.

Looking forward
From the trials being undertaken at the moment in 400 schools across England, it would appear that teachers are being asked to spend more time gathering evidence of children’s ability than they do at present so that they can ensure that children are being entered for the right tests at the right time. The methods of gathering this evidence include:

  • collecting portfolios of pieces of written work
  • recording evidence from pieces of oral work
  • filling in assessment forms for a significant number of pupils in order to make a judgement as to their overall level.

Although level descriptors and exemplar samples of work are supplied as part of the trial, many schools are nervous about the possibility of wrongly assessing children, and therefore entering them for the wrong test. Government spokesmen have stated that most schools have responded positively to the trial and that initial problems with increased workload will reduce as the pilot is improved and then rolled out, something which already seems inevitable.

In conclusion
Some may argue that concerns over the ‘stress’ pupils experience during SATs will teach them a valuable lesson in life. After all, working is stressful, living is stressful, and we have to prepare our children for the realities of the modern world. Perhaps the idea of tests being too stressful for children is political correctness gone mad. However, there is an important problem to consider – the workloads of teachers. We are placing more and more emphasis on teachers (from Foundation Stage upwards) to test, test and test again the children in our schools. Testing causes a multitude of problems, should we be labelling our children according to tests from such early ages? Are we really equipping our children with reliable life skills by testing them on whether they can recognise a square or not? Why are we really testing the children – is it just so the government can publish healthy league tables and then proclaim that they (the government) are fantastic because more children can read or write? Would it not be better to let our experienced, dedicated and diligent teachers get on with teaching, as opposed to having to drill their pupils in readiness for artificial tests?

As ever, the proof of the pudding of whether scrapping SATs reduces stress and workload for pupils and teachers will come with the roll-out of the scheme across the country. For now though, with SATs already looming on the horizon for Year 6 teachers, any prospect of reducing stress seems far away.